Pong: The Game that Started Video Games


Video games have been around almost as long as the computer, with professionals and hobbyists alike finding clever ways to amuse themselves in their spare time. Most of the games from the ‘50s and ‘60s that we still have records of originated as side projects not originally intended for commercial distribution. Examples include Spacewar!, a head-to-head space shooter that was developed at MIT in 1962, Hamurabi, a 1968 resource management game that was used to demonstrate a new programming language, and Marienbad, a Polish logic puzzle game that a student conceived in 1961 while sitting through a multi-hour lecture on military theory.

These gaming experiments are perhaps more interesting for their historical and sociological significance than for their playability, however. Even if pre-70s computer hardware hadn’t severely limited the complexity of games that could be developed, designers of this era seldom thought beyond the scope of their immediate peers and most didn’t have any commercial designs. This all began to change in the early ‘70s with the founding of Atari. Much ink has been spilt over the story of Nolan Bushnell and the early days of his revolutionary company, so I won’t dwell on it here. Suffice to say that they were the creators of the first game to make a significant imprint on society at large, a table tennis simulator called Pong. There were other companies attempting to create a market for video games -- notably, Magnavox released a console to the home markets that actually predates Pong -- but there was something about the digital paddle game that compelled people to drop quarters by the fistful.

The gameplay is simple.  A ball bounces between two vertical paddles that can be moved up and down by the player(s) using a controller.  If you fail to strike the ball when it approaches your side of the virtual playing field, your opponent gets a point.  If the ball gets past your opponent, you get a point.  And that's it -- highest score wins! 

I enjoy Pong, and I think most people can at least appreciate the basic appeal of the game, but how does it measure up as art?  One way to approach this question is to determine whether or not its appeal is unique.  Is there a definitive version of Pong that stands above the rest for its playability and tendency to immerse the player?  I don't think so.  There are many variants of the original game, with a wide range of controls, paddle sizes, ball speeds, and paddle shapes -- in fact, the earliest history of arcade games is basically about the proliferation of Pong clones, where designers took the game and just made superficial changes to the graphical presentation.  And having played a number of these variants, I can't say that the experiences were fundamentally different. 

What I think Atari really demonstrated with Pong is that any game design can be compelling to people if it presents a viable forum within which competition can occur, no matter how simplistic the controls or bland the graphical presentation.  The opponent doesn't even need to be another human being -- even a low-level AI can be amusing for a while -- because the in-born drive to develop our skills and show our genetic quality will bring us back to play again.

Pong is, for its time, an excellent game.  The fact that it achieved so much with so little is remarkable, and I have no doubt that early designers had it in the back of their minds whenever they were coming up with new games.  But beyond acting as a lesson in game design, and possibly having some nostalgic value for Baby Boomers, does Pong offer us anything that we can't get elsewhere in 2019?  Probably not.  If it weren't for the special place of Pong in video game history, it would surely have faded into obscurity against the vast backdrop of similarly addictive games that are easily available to modern gamers.

Still, it's hard to deny that there is a certain minimalist charm to the game, not unlike the feeling one would get from listening to an old recording of a Delta bluesman.  Pong has been imprinted in our social consciousness to such an extent that perhaps its greatest aesthetic cue comes from the mere fact that it is "Pong".  In that sense, reviewing it is somewhat like reviewing "Mary Had a Little Lamb".  It's not the kind of thing that a music connoisseur is likely to spend much time listening to, but its place in culture is such that criticizing its simplicity feels a bit absurd.  

So I won't rate this game, but I do recommend trying it, if you haven't already, if for no other reason than cultural literacy.

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